Does Marcelo Rios feel an obligation to be rotten? That question
was raised at last spring's French Open before his match with
home-country favorite Arnaud Boetsch. "You'll be playing on
center court," Rios was told. "Will it bother you to have 15,000
French people cheering against you?"
"No, I am looking forward to it," said Rios. "I am at my best
when it is just me against the world."
If that's so, then the 22-year-old Rios, from Chile, is often at
his best. And worst. The winner of last week's Champions Cup in
Indian Wells, Calif., ranks third on the men's tour in points
and first in prickliness. Cold, haughty and vigorously hostile,
he bullies anyone who gets in his way, lobbing insults at
umpires, openly mocking lesser opponents and snubbing greater
ones. "Many players despise Rios, " says a veteran pro. "After
five years on the tour, he's still extremely aloof, still has no
social graces, still acts as if no one exists but him. It's not
just his snottiness that bothers players--it's his general lack
of respect for them."
Exhibit A in The People v. Marcelo Rios is a blank sheet of
paper. Kids seeking his signature are apt to be flipped the bird
or showered with descriptions more appropriate to a
proctologist's office. During Rios's opening match in Indian
Wells, he was tormented by Rachel Cormell, a 16-year-old tennis
fan. Cormell squealed loudly on every point won by Hendrik
Dreekmann, a player known the length and breadth of Bielefeld,
Germany. "I'm not rooting for Dreekmann," Rachel said. "I'm
rooting against Rios." A year ago, after a practice session,
Cormell asked Rios for his autograph and was blown off. "He was
nasty and rude," she said. "Now it's payback time."
Exhibit B is a tennis ball liberally encrusted with Roland
Garros clay. Rios's first opponent in last year's French Open
was Wayne Black, ranked No. 249 in the world at the time.
Trailing 0-2, 0-40, Black dived for a drop shot and weakly
pushed a return over the net. He had conceded the point and was
walking away when the ball buzzed by his ear. Instead of tapping
Black's shot away, Rios had tried to brain him. "Marcelo is a
finely calibrated Swiss watch missing a couple of wheels," says
Ion Tiriac, the former doubles partner of Ilie Nastase, from
whom Rios may have learned some of his Nasty tricks. "One of
those missing wheels is in his head."
Exhibit C is a buffet table laden with comestibles. Tired of
waiting in the clubhouse lunch line at Wimbledon last year, our
man reportedly told Monica Seles, "Move your fat butt!"
Exhibit D is a soggy pair of underwear. A year ago Rios left a
tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., without remembering to pick up
his laundry. Tour manager Weller Evans took the bundle to the
next stop, in Indian Wells. According to an eyewitness in the
clubhouse, Rios walked up to Evans and demanded, "Where's my
"It's in my room, Marcelo," Weller replied. "I'll bring it over
"No, I need it now!"
"Marcelo, I'm not going to get it for you until you show some
common courtesy," said Evans, who suggested that Rios start by
saying "please" and "thank you."
Narrowing his eyes, Rios snarled, "Keep the damned clothes! I
will never say please or thank you." Then he turned and left.
Later Rios showed up in the clubhouse for his opening match.
There, floating in the whirlpool, was his laundry.
Rios's bullwhip temper is matched only by his bullwhip lefty
forehand. "Marcelo is one of the few players I'd pay money to
see," says 25th-ranked Thomas Enqvist. "He's a wizard with a
racket." Once called the Andre Agassi of Chile, the 5'9",
140-pound Rios is an aggressive baseliner who takes the ball on
the rise and punches last-second passing shots with great
disguise. Against huge-serving Greg Rusedski in the Indian Wells
final, Rios prowled with such grace that he seemed never to
reach for a ball--he merely awaited it. He kept Rusedski, a 1997
U.S. Open finalist, off-balance with a parade of topspins and
slices and finished him off 6-3, 6-7 (15-17), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4.
"In this age of power, rarely do you see a player manipulate the
ball like Rios, " says Tiriac. "Without being overly romantic,
talent still should play a role."
Raised on Santiago clay, Rios prefers hard courts and is
comfortable on grass. Indeed, in 1997 he was the only player on
the men's tour to reach the fourth round of all four Grand Slam
tournaments. But his heart sometimes negates his hands and legs.
Rios has a reputation for quitting when he's down rather than
fighting back. "In the past, if I'm behind, I say, 'O.K., I
concede,'" he says. "Tanking is not the right word--I just
didn't try as hard as I could have. Well, maybe I tanked a
couple of times." His most transparent surrender came during the
semifinals of the '96 Canadian Open, in which he rolled over
against then 43rd-ranked Todd Woodbridge, 6-0, 6-3. "Marcelo
wasn't all that interested out there," says Woodbridge. "That
sort of hacked the press off about him."
Rios has frequently been hacked off about the press. A
long-simmering pique at some inaccurate stories, including one
claiming he had been expelled from grade school, has nurtured
his cool attitude toward reporters. Nor does he appreciate the
Santiago gossip pages for their endless prying into his
relationship with Patricia Larrain, a Chilean beauty queen. "The
papers invent too many things about me," grumbles Rios. "They
always look for the bad in my life and try to put me down. They
say that before some matches I go to discos, get drunk and stay
out until three or four in the morning."
Are the stories true?
"Yes," Rios says, "but it's my business, not theirs."
Tennis writers covering the French Open have awarded Rios their
Prix Citron ("Lemon Prize") for noncooperation two years
running. When Rios does cooperate, he sometimes overdoes it.
After winning his semifinal match at this year's Australian
Open, he was asked what he would do with his two nights off
before playing in the final. "I don't know," he said. "I don't
want to go to the casino. I lose so many bets."
"Will the [$412,000] winner's check cover the loses?" he was
"I don't think so."
That response, which was widely reported, seemed to imply that
Rios was a big gambler. But Rios says he was just kidding.
"Unfortunately, anybody can be a tennis journalist," he says,
laughing softly and running his fingers through his ink-black
hair. "They are not really smart people."
He may have a point. A simpleminded tennis scribe once asked the
tawny-skinned Rios if he had "Indian blood." The terse reply:
"What if I called you the son of a whore?"
Chileans pride themselves on being the English of Latin America,
with bloodlines, titles and famous surnames conferring status.
Rios, who tends to keep his lean, shrewd face tilted up and his
nose high, sniffing purer air, was born into privilege. His
father is a partner in a large Santiago construction firm, his
mother a schoolteacher. When Marcelo was nine, his family moved
to a house next to a country club. He found tennis and lost
interest in school. "I didn't behave that good in class," says
Rios, nicknamed Chino because of the Asiatic set of his eyes. "I
wasn't the kind of person who could sit behind a desk for three
hours." But he was the kind of person who could stand behind a
net for three hours. So at 14 he transferred to a sports academy.
Tennis came easily to him. Perhaps too easily. He liked to toy
with other juniors, racing to a 5-0 lead in the final set and
then slowly, cruelly reeling them back into the match until he
was bored enough to end it. "Opponents hated him," says Chilean
tennis reporter Nelson Flores. "But Marcelo's attitude was
always no estoy ahi--figuratively, I don't care."
Over his parents' protests, Rios left home at 16 to pursue the
game full time. He dominated the 18-and-under circuit and turned
pro soon after winning the 1993 U.S. Open juniors title. Despite
his rise through the rankings, he has proved to be better at
outlasting foes than outnerving them. Though his record in
five-setters in 1997 was 6-1, he won only 5 of 8 tiebreakers and
one of five tournament finals. By losing in the finals of the
ATP stop in Santiago (for the third straight year), he failed to
qualify for the year-end Masters. Then in the final of this
year's Australian Open, he was annihilated 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 by Petr
Korda. "It was nerves," says Rios's coach, Larry Stefanki.
"Marcelo's feet didn't move, and with him, movement is
Knowing that Rios can be riled, opponents work to rattle his
cage. "You beat Rios by outhustling him, keeping him
off-balance, mixing up your angles and speeds," says Woodbridge.
"When he's uncomfortable, he's out of his game."
Woodbridge's doubles partner, Mark Woodforde, doesn't think Rios
will ever win a Grand Slam tournament. "Marcelo doesn't have a
big winning shot," Woodforde says. "His weapon is to defend and
chase down a lot of shots, a la Michael Chang. It would be
extremely difficult for him to grind it out for seven
best-of-five matches over two weeks. He'd have to play on his
heart, which previously hasn't been too big."
Lately, though, it has shown signs of swelling. During the
Kroger St. Jude tournament in Memphis in February, Rios
fulfilled an ATP obligation to spend time promoting the tour by
visiting a hospital, then also appeared with a wheelchair-bound
Chilean boy before a match. "I saw Marcelo with the kid and
thought, Jeez, that's great," says Woodforde. "For a guy who
normally has a black cloud over him, he seemed to be having a
hell of a good time."
"He signed the kid's shirt, and the kid began to cry," says
Stefanki. "Marcelo told me, 'I didn't realize it could mean this
much.' Marcelo is just starting to grasp how much influence he
Says Brazilian pro Fernando Meligeni, "When Marcelo joined the
tour, he was walking on the moon. Now, he's a little bit closer
to earth." One small step for Rios, perhaps, but one giant leap
told Monica Seles, "Move your fat butt."